Saturday 28 February 2015

The Trial

The idea that Ned Kelly didn’t get a fair trial is a core belief of Kelly fanatics, who maintain that he shouldn’t have been hanged for the killing of Lonigan at Stringybark Creek because Kelly shot him in self defence; it was Kill or be Killed! The Fanatics claim Ned Kellys problem was that he had an inexperienced Lawyer defending him, he didn’t attempt to defend himself , that McIntyre told lies in the Courtroom and the Judge had it in for him in any case. If only Ned Kelly had a proper Lawyer, or more time or had taken the opportunity to do what he said he could do if given a chance, and tell the story from his perspective and persuade the Jury of his innocence! If only…..and then it all would have been different for our dear Ned!

Recently I watched the Sixty Minutes episode from 15  years ago where they recreated the Trial of Ned Kelly and gave him a proper  lawyer and the opportunity to state his own case to the Jury. It was preceeded by an interview with “Australias leading Kelly expert” Ian Jones – of course! Jones remarks would certainly have coloured the average viewers perception of the story with such contentious lines as 
“I would trust Ned Kelly with my life” 
and Ned was 
“ a very brave man, a very honest man in his way” 
“ a man who was drawn, or let himself be drawn into a chain of events that led to his outlawry”

Quite inaccurately – as to be expected from commercial TV I suppose – the narrator says the proceeds of the Bank robberies “were given away, Robin Hood style, to the Poor” 
and says of Judge Barry that he 
“sentenced one of Kellys uncles to be hanged” which is true, but not the whole story by any means. The drunk uncle burned down the Kelly house in the middle of the night, fortunately incinerating no-one, but making a large family of children homeless. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to a long term of imprisonment but those facts mess up the poor persecuted Kelly narrative beloved of Kelly fanatics and dumb 60 Minutes journalists!

As for the Mock Trial itself : now we have an incompetent Prosecutor in the form of Julian Burnside, an emotive and silly oration from Ned, a smug Kate Kelly and a defence based on the 20th century hoax about leather straps. So naturally, Ned is acquitted.

But I wonder if the Fanatics ever do think about what exactly would have happened if Ned Kelly’s defense had been successful, and he had been found not guilty in 1880 ?  I have NEVER seen any discussion of this scenario, the one they dream about fondly, because I suspect, whenever they think about it they realize it gets them nowhere. They would be like would-be Jail escapees who emerge blinking excitedly into the bright sunshine from  their carefully dug tunnel and find  to their  horror they are still in the middle of their prison! 

The  awful truth for the Fanatics is that the ultimate outcome would have been the same : acquittal of the Murder of Lonigan would have soon been followed by Trial for the murder of Kennedy, he would have been found guilty and of course would have been hanged for murdering Kennedy. Even Ian Jones believes this, but of course nobody ever talks about it.

But in a Trial for the Murder of Kennedy, Ned would not have been able to plead ignorance of who it was he was shooting; he would not have been able to plead self defence; he would not have been able to claim it was “Kill or be Killed” because Kennedy was trying to get away, Kennedy was unarmed and wounded, defenceless, when Ned Kelly shot him at point blank range.

Another thought has occurred to me as well, about this killing, something that I haven’t read elsewhere that I would be interested to hear others thoughts on. Its about the  peculiar thing that is supposed to have happened after he was dead : Ned Kelly covered him with his cloak. Its said that someone returned to the camp to get Kennedys cloak and cover him with it as some sort of sign of respect. The odd thing of course is that this same respect wasn’t shown towards the other two dead police who were right at the camp itself.  And why, if it was a sign of respect were Kennedys possessions stolen from his corpse, along with those from the other dead Police? Surely its the grossest disrespect  imaginable to rifle through the pockets and flog the watch of a dead Policeman? I don’t buy the Mythology on this one. None of it really makes sense.

My suggestion is this: Kennedys cloak was retrieved because he was not fatally wounded, and to start with the plan was to leave him there, alive , as night fell and the air  grew cold, perhaps to survive long enough to be rescued. They retrieved his cloak because he was alive – the others didn’t get cloaks because they were dead. Its also known that Kennedy was alive and lucid enough to not only converse with the Gang but also to write a letter to his wife in his notebook, the notebook that was subsequently recovered with pages ripped out of it. In the end though, the psychopath’s lack of empathy for fellow human beings trumped the other gang members humanity and Kennedy was silenced, like an ISIS Hostage pleading for his life, the retrieved cloak thrown over to cover the ghastly sight of his shattered torso. Later of course the psychopath elaborated a story to portray himself in some sort of saintly light, breaking his own heart to put the poor policeman out of his misery. Crocodile tears!

Without a doubt, Ned Kelly was destined for the Gallows. Re-enactments of the trial he did get, manipulated to get him an acquittal achieve almost nothing, except perhaps to highlight possible deficiencies in the process. What would be really interesting though, would be to recreate another trial Kelly didn’t get, the one for the murder of Kennedy. Then, everyone would realize that in the end, albeit by imperfect means, when Kelly was hanged Justice was done.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Ned Kelly : A Lawless Life

I think we can take it from its title, that in writing this book Doug Morrissey was taking aim first and foremost at the work of Ian Jones, a man Morrissey describes somewhat patronisingly I feel as “the best known of the myth-makers….despite his lack of academic credentials” The titles of these two authors major works are identical except that Morrissey inserts the unambiguous “Lawless” to  replace   Ian Jones  non-committal “Short” to indicate in no uncertain terms, right at the start exactly what he thinks about Ned Kellys “short life”.

Doug Morrisseys book on the life of Ned Kelly is the very latest in that crowded trail of Kellyana that started before Kelly was even dead. I suppose every author completes his task feeling that his publication will end the trail once and for all, that he has finally written the definitive work,  the one that answers all the questions and tidies up all the loose ends.  Certainly I think that’s what Morrissey tried to do, because in addition to the main body of the work he has included several Appendices in which he surveys  the modern Kelly mythmakers one at a time, he  provides a detailed line by line commentary on the Jerilderie letter, and answers a few other issues that he feels need specific commentary on. So has he done it?

Well firstly he states in the Preface that the broader context of Kellys life is covered in his other works, his PhD thesis among them, so this book is not actually a complete biography - it ignores Ned Kellys early life and origins, and most of what happened after he was captured at Glenrowan. For example Neds association with Harry Power gets half a sentence, the only mention made of his father “Red” Kelly is to record that he died in 1866 and the only mention of his rescue of Dick Shelton is in relation to his clothing at Glenrowan, where Kelly was wearing the sash he received as a reward.   Morrissey describes what happened to Ned Kelly after he was captured at Glenrowan in a single sentence : “So Kelly was nursed back to health, tried and hanged.” 

Instead Morrissey concentrates on the details of Ned Kelly’s adult life as a stock thief and fugitive and shows that the problem with the modern “legend” is that it is based largely on an acceptance of Ned Kelly’s own words in the Jerilderie letter. Closer examination and comparison with numerous other historical records and accounts proves that time and again Kellys version of events cannot be relied on to be a true and accurate record. It is a detailed and comprehensive scrutiny, very similar in style and conclusion to the 2012 publication “The Kelly Gang Unmasked” by Ian MacFarlane, which was of course the landmark publication that signaled the beginning of the end of Kelly idolatry. I am not sure that this new book adds much more than drive a few more nails into the lid which MacFarlane had already quite firmly nailed on to the Kelly coffin. The tone of this book is uncompromising and hard-nosed, very different from the dispassionate academic style of the earlier works. 

A typical example is the “McCormick Affair” an incident that resulted in Ned Kellys first term of imprisonment. Ned is routinely portrayed in the pro-Kelly narratives, and he claimed himself  in the Jerilderie Letter to be a bemused innocent bystander who ends up being unfairly persecuted by the Police. Instead, according to Morrisseys research it was Ned himself who wrote the offensive letter, and Ned’s uncle John Lloyd testified later in court that he “saw Kelly try to ride over McCormick”. Ned  had blamed Mrs McCormack for hitting his horse and making it lunge forward, one of innumerable examples of Ned seeking to absolve himself of responsibility for what happened and blame someone else, excuses which the pro-kelly people duly trot out at every retelling. But in reality this was not unfair police prosecution but an example of what we might now describe as “bogan” behaviour being called out.

Another example taken from the inaccurate pro-kelly narrative is Neds insistence that the police who went to Stringybark creek were so heavily armed they could only have been intending to murder him and therefore he was justified in shooting them in self defense. In fact the only arms they had in addition to their Police revolvers were two rifles – one a “fowling piece” and the other a borrowed weapon added to their kit at the last minute. As is well known, they took and used the fowling piece to kill birds to eat while on the search.

Morrissey shows later how Ned Kellys much vaunted destruction of documents taken from the safe during the raid in Euroa harmed selectors rather than Squatters, the opposite of what is usually claimed.

Morrisseys untangling of the complex relationship between Kelly and Fitzpatrick is quite startling. Fitzpatrick is demonized and  pilloried throughout the pro-Kelly literature but Morrissey uncovers a much more interesting story of closeness and intimacy between Fitzpatrick and the Kellys, friendships it seems that both were hoping to exploit to their own advantage, but which in the end went horribly wrong.

So this new book is certainly a “must read” for anyone interested in the Kelly story. It provides some new insights and perspectives but never-the-less there are a few things that disappoint me about it. The biggest disappointment with this book is its more or less complete lack of proper references. Why Morrissey decided to dispense with them is beyond me, because by leaving them out readers are denied the opportunity to verify  his claims for themselves, and to a degree as a result his book is reduced to the level of just another version of the Kelly story: its Morrisseys word against Neds. Essentially Morrissey is saying “Trust me on this” and personally, having read and reviewed his article on Stock Theft I have every confidence in his integrity as a writer. However references make the difference between a work being a great read and an authoritative text, and I think to properly challenge Ian Jones book he needed to supply them.

Another disappointment I have with this book is that it doesn’t address the great question of “Why?”  He writes 
For reasons that cant be pursued here Australians have made  him their national hero  
Maybe at some other time Morrissey will pursue those reasons but I would be intrigued to read his understanding of how Ned Kelly became a national hero. This really is the great mystery of the saga,
but its not just modern day Australians who made Ned Kelly their national hero – he was a hero even when still alive, a phenomenon which demands explanation. Why, as someone posted in a comment on this Blog last year, did NOBODY attempt to dob him in and get their hands on the absolutely massive rewards offered for his capture? Why did the people who knew him protect and support him? If Ned Kelly was just a liar, and a violent and nasty thief then why is he still remembered?

John McQuilton was of course a Kelly author who attempted to answer that greater conundrum about Ned Kelly, the “why” of the Kelly Legend and as I suggested in a previous Post, produced an intriguing and plausible answer.  However, in his chapter entitled The Makers of the Modern Kelly Myth, Morrissey dismisses McQuiltons work as “the shonky foundations upon which successive Kelly writers have built their edifices ever since” He is equally dismissive of Ian Jones work, and is particularly unimpressed with Peter Fitzsimons effort, describing it as “not truthful” and “a novel with distorted historical fact and copious footnotes added to give verisimilitude”

These are harsh judgements and I don’t agree entirely with his assessment of McQuilton, or of Jones,  but  I do agree that the Fitzsimons effort was a cynical commercial exercise that added nothing to the debate despite promising that it would! My own view is that Morrisseys characterisation of Ned Kelly, the man, is accurate.  Those other authors,  in trying to somehow reconcile the man with the  mythology, have made the mistake of getting the two confused, and to a greater or lesser extent have ended up merging them, and then finding themselves obliged to dream up unsustainable theories about Republic, about Land wars and political symbolism to try to hold them together. Morrissey  instead has avoided that mistake and has managed to  isolate the man from the myth with cold clinical precision. His assessment fits with the recent characterisation of Kelly as a psychopath, and he has produced a devastating exposition of his lawless life. 

Its been  predicted that the main stream media won’t be interested in this book because its not Kelly Myth. However they did take an interest in Ian MacFarlane and his book, and in Craig McCormicks book Ned Kelly Under the Microscope  so maybe the tide is starting to turn in favour of historical truth. I hope so. 

4 Stars.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

The End of the Line?

In the Comments following the Police Blogpost, I wrote this:
“… its slowly dawning on me that there aren’t that many people with an ACTIVE interest in Ned Kelly. They have views about him but as with most things these are opinions based on little or no serious study or reflection. The NKF Key Master boasted he had hundreds of members but almost no body has posted there this year. They are content in their beliefs and not interested in defending them or examining them.”

But yesterday in the Comments following the Social Bandits Blogpost  Geoff wrote “Got the Morrissey book today. Very hard-hitting. The Kelly fanatics will scream loud and long.” 
And in response Mal wrote “Oh no, not more oceans of tearies, cries and whimpers from Iron Outlaw and Ned Kelly Forum members.”

In fact,  thinking about it, I decided that I would be very surprised if the Kelly Fanatics on those sites make the slightest mention of it – unless Sharon does of course – because there have been no posts for two months on the Ironoutlaw site, and  almost nothing on the Ned Kelly Forum this year either, other than the hysteria about the Bankers Letter, about which nothing more has been seen or heard.

Remember what happened last year, 2014 to the major Kelly work that CSIRO Published, “Ned Kelly Under the Microscope"? One comment on the NKF site from someone saying they wouldn’t read it and on their Facebook page a prominent member and  idiot from NKF rubbished the book and made insulting remarks about the Scientists, and then the thread was deleted! They were challenged to justify their foolish claims and instead of attempting to do so, or better still apologising for such ignorant commentary, they took it down. No mention on the Ironoutlaw site either, but on their Facebook Page Mr Webb of course didnt read it but insulted the books Editor and reposted some out of date nonsense about the Skull that’s proven wrong, and again, that’s it.

And thinking  further back to the Peter Fitzsimons book of 2013, there was some justified acknowledgement of the role Sharon had in helping to make it accurate but no serious discussion on NKF - not even a Book review though it’s a very “Fanatic – friendly” account!  Go back another year, to 2012, before my time but the year of The Kelly Gang Unmasked, and there is at least a book review on Ironoutlaw, albeit really just one that said “ I hate this book because I don’t agree with it” but then no further discussion or analysis. And on NKF ? - not a whisper – though I gather from Comments on other sites that  there was once quite a substantial thread, but  people were expelled for praising it, the discussion was expunged from the data base and nobody talks about it any more.

So for 2015, we have another Kelly Book, but I expect it will be ignored.

So I have started to wonder – what really is happening to Kelly Fanaticism in Australia? Is it dying out? How come IronOutlaw claims to get hundreds of letters every month but has published none  this year, and only 5 in December?

To try to answer this question I looked at the activity on the longest running Kelly site, Iron Outlaw, which claims to get “hundreds” of emails every year, and long ago claimed nearly 5000 since inception. What I have just done – it took half an hour – is count up the number of letters posted on the site every year since it stated in late 1999, and here are the annual figures in Graph form:

Ironoutlaw Annual  Tally of Letters Published
What you will notice firstly is that the claim that every year “hundreds” of letters are received could only be true if most of them are NOT PUBLISHED ( over half of the years, less than 100 are published, and “ hundreds” (plural) must imply at least two hundred wouldn’t it?). Secondly, as the total number Published is 1541, if they really have received nearly 5000 letters, then 3500, or, in other words 70% of the letters they receive are UNPUBLISHED. This would be consistent with what we already know about the  Fanatics propensity to censor and suppress opinions they don’t agree with, but this analysis suggests a remarkable two thirds of the responses they receive are unfavourable! Of the ones they do publish a significant proportion are from school kids wanting information, theres a sizeable chunk every year discussing the Ned Kelly Weekend, and theres a small group of names that recur time and again. Thirdly for the last  six years there has been a rapid decline in letters published from 206  in 2009 to a miserable 23 last year.

The standout years were 2003 and 2009. This is because in 2003 Heath Ledger starred in the Hollywood Movie, Ned Kelly, and in 2009 there was an ABC dock about Ned and a lot in the press about the excavations at Glenrowan and the identification of Ned Kellys skeleton in Melbourne. I wondered if perhaps the arrival of the Ned Kelly Forum in 2012 might have had an impact - perhaps stimulating interest in  the Kelly Gang - or perhaps simply dragging a limited market to itself and away from IO but neither of those scenarios seemed to happen. The Graph shows that the decline that began in 2009 continued through 2012 but didnt seem to accelerate after the NKF started, and last year they were both in decline. For the last four years there has been an average of less than two comments a week. Compare that with this Blog, a non-fanatic Blog : in less than 10 months there have been 476 Comments!

Clearly there will always be interest in Ned Kelly and the Outbreak, just as there will always be enthusiast interest in every other aspect of Australian History and pre-history.  But I think its clear that without mainstream media hype, the worshipful adoration of Ned Kelly and promotion of him as a hero by the kind of person who used to post to IO and NKF will decline to a tiny handful of irrelevant fanatics. The IO and NKF websites will stand as mute testimony to the truth that all the modern Kelly sympathisers can be bothered to do so is wait for something to appear in the media that they can attack or else slobber over, and “Like” each other on Facebook. It reminds me a bit of the so-called Sympathisers who were said to be at Glenrowan - they stood about watching, did nothing active and then when it appeared their Hero was about to go under, they all went home.

Saturday 14 February 2015

The Social Bandit

 "Tom Roberts - Bailed up - Google Art Project" by Tom Roberts 
McQuiltons 1979 book “The Kelly Outbreak” is subtitled “The geographical Dimension of Social Banditry” and it’s a truly fascinating book to read. He attempts not only to describe what happened in the Outbreak – as others had already done before – but also to develop a better explanation for it than the existing hopelessly simplistic notion that it was either because of the criminal nature of the Kelly Gang or else the corrupt nature of the Police.

McQuilton came to the view that the best way to understand the Outbreak was to see it as an example of ‘Social Banditry” a concept developed by a renowned, now dead British Historian called Eric Hobsbawm. The “social bandit”, according to Hobsbawms theory is a figure who at first glance might appear to be an ordinary criminal, but who, on closer examination proves to be something more: the social bandit  emerges from rural discontent and engages in lawbreaking as  a kind of  social protest, activities that attract considerable local support and approval, though it is at a primitive “pre-political” level. If I understand the theory correctly the Bandit is not regarded as a person who has a deliberately chosen “pre” or “semi” political agenda of any kind but rather is a product of his times and a particular mix of social and political conditions, one of which is poverty, another a society that is only marginally governable because of social unrest and division, and another, reduced respect for authority and inadequate or incompetent Policing. McQuilton believes the social conditions at the time of the Outbreak were exactly those Hobsbawm described as the pre-requisites for social banditry to emerge – in particular the deep divisions in the rural frontier community between squatters and selectors that made for widespread social unrest.

McQuiltons particular and intriguing insight however, is his belief that these divisions and unrest largely sprang from the peculiarities of local geography. He provides a detailed description of the geography of  “Kelly Country”, describing with the help of fascinating maps the river systems, the fertile river valleys and flood plains, the gold fields and the dense bush covered foothills and highlands, and describes how this all affected such things as the patterns of land settlement and land use, the physical constraints to communication and travel to markets in distant major centers, and the effects of its proximity to the NSW border.

The social bandit, according to the theory is never-the-less a criminal, rather than a revolutionary or social activist, and is preoccupied with a personal rebellion destined to fail. However though a criminal the bandit is supported by sections of society because he reflects their value system  and embodies valued personal qualities such as in the case of Ned Kelly physical prowess, skilled horsemanship, loyalty to family and personal courage. In life and even in failure he achieves the status of a hero and becomes part of legend and folklore, an Icon. However his purpose is not really political but personal and in any case he lacks the expertise to channel his discontent to a political end.

Inevitably there are  difficulties with this view, that Ned Kelly was a social bandit. The most important one, in my view is that to conform to the “Type”, and make Ned Kelly more of a social protestor and less of a criminal McQuilton is obliged to  present Ned Kellys lawless behviour as being directed solely at Authority and the Squatter, as being somewhat symbolic rather than purely criminal and wherever possible he prefers the explanation of events that leaves Kelly in the most favourable light. He says this for example
“The Outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors ; its trigger cause was the arrest and jailing of Mrs Kelly which has stemmed from the squatter inspired crackdown on duffing and horse theft in 1877”

Indeed, as he says, the outbreak was rooted in antagonisms between squatters and selectors. On the contrary though, the trigger for the Outbreak was Ned Kellys theft of 11 horses, worth 50 to 100,000 dollars in todays money, a massive criminal undertaking known in Kelly history as the  “Whitty Larceny” but this trigger is ignored by McQuilton in preference for Police behavior, the arrest of Mrs Kelly. Rather than label it as a “squatter inspired crackdown” I would have thought it would be more accurate to describe it as a legitimate response to locally organized serious crime, and quite appropriate, even if handled badly.

In another place McQuilton says the Kellys victims were the squatters, but in fact what we know from Morrisseys work is that Kelly stole from squatters and selectors alike, though inevitably, as squatters had most of the stock they were the ones who were more often the victims. Furthermore we also know that Kelly traded with and worked with some of the squatters, and both he and other members of the greater Kelly clan had friendships and other complex personal relationships with Police. These facts muddy the “social bandit” thesis.

In discussing the Fitzpatrick incident McQuilton misquotes the Dr who treated his wound saying that the Doctor “refused to swear it had been caused by a bullet” The full quote of what Nicholson said is “I could not swear it was a bullet wound but it had all the appearance of one”. In his descriptions of the Gangs plans for Glenrowan McQuilton glosses over the brutal reality of what was planned for the train, merely mentioning that it was to be derailed and survivors would become hostages. He describes the Stringybark Creek debacle as the legacy of Neds pistol whipping by Constable Hall. He uncritically accepts Neds declaration that he didn’t recognize Lonigan before shooting him, though Ned was well known to have said that if he ever killed a man, it would be Lonigan.

Its clear to me that overall, McQuilton has a sympathetic view of Ned Kelly, and as a result I think he significantly underplays the role played by the manifest criminality of the Gang and of Ned Kelly in particular, in order to enhance and rehabilitate the image of Ned Kelly as more glamorous social bandit, rather than as a plain criminal. This I think was probably unnecessary, because as Hobsbawm writes in the first chapter of his book “Bandits”  their names and the details of their exploits hardly matter” This is because banditry is a social phenomenon, and whats important are not the precise historical details about the bandit but the way in which the bandit inspires, encourages and gives voice to and becomes a focus for dissatisfaction and the grievances of groups within society. Whats important is that whether or not what they come to believe about him is true, the bandit is  regarded as the champion to the poor and powerless, the disaffected and marginalized. He becomes a reflection of their concerns and disquiets about the society they are a part of, and becomes the repository of their hopes and inspiration for the future. This is how the Legend of Ned Kelly  functions even today for the dwindling few who regard him still as an icon.

So to say that the Kelly Outbreak is an example of social banditry is to say nothing much about what or who Ned Kelly really was. It is instead a statement about the use that was made of his reputation by people who admired what they believed he did and represented, and who created the Legend about him. The Outbreak was one thing, Ned Kelly is another and we are still left with the task of peeling back the Mythology to find the real Ned Kelly underneath. McQuilton has provided some wonderful analysis and insights into understanding his times and the origins of the Myth. 

As I have already written, this is a great read and a must for every serious Kelly enthusiast.